Year of the Dragon - Sample Chapters

Year of the Dragon                                                              

A Geek Grrl s’ Tale of Overdue Romance

Copyright 2012         Alexis Thacker


            Ian Redfield was extraordinarily pleased with himself as he stared at his computer screen. Was it really her after all of these years? He had been searching for information on the guest of honor for the fan convention he helped host bi-yearly and there she was – by way of a link from the guest’s website to a blog article written by her a few years prior.  Ian wondered if this blog was her main vocation or a sideline, so he clicked through every link he could on the site.

            She seemed to be a pro at keeping constraints on her online persona; he would not have expected any less from her. There wasn’t even a real photograph on the site; it had a caricature and a colorized, stylized, enhanced photo a la Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portrait. However, even from these he could tell this was the same girl - now woman, from his college days. 

            Pressing on, he found that she was writing a book about fan conventions. Talk about luck, according to her blog, which listed all of the conventions she had attended, she had never been to his convention.  This gave him a reason to send her an anonymous complementary invitation through her publisher. If he could get her here, did he have a surprise for her.

            Barely containing his elation, he gave his assistant the information to pass on to his old college friend; to say he was excited was an understatement. This would give him the chance to have that lost conversation he had always wanted to have with her; over a long weekend. He had a lot to do before their reunion, for one he had to create a plan of action to take once they met again.  Would she recognize him immediately? Would she be the same or would he have to learn her all over again?
Nearly fourteen years is a long time, especially when one of the parties involved had made a substantial physical transformation. He didn’t see anything on her blogs, website or connecting social media about family or spouse. Nothing that told what she did or how she lived after she disappeared out of his life. 

Nonetheless, he couldn’t let his anticipation ruin the moment he had been imagining for years. What she did was wretched, leaving him with a gaping hole that took years and many women to fill. He’d never forget how one of the only people whom he trusted in this world turned on him for no reason and never contacted him again. The witch never apologized or saw fit to give an explanation. He would make sure she would rue the day.

Chapter 1                    Early Morning Thursday

            Alleged adults recognize that running away isn’t always the best solution, even if it is in the guise of work. Common clichés citing the need to ‘clear my head’, ‘to think about it’, or ‘be objective’ are just bullshit procrastination vehicles; and Rachel Seychelles is driving straight to hell in a stolen ride. The coarse rumbling in her gut wasn’t so much from not having a decent meal in the last twenty four hours as it was unconscious anxiety roiling through her body desperately clawing her nerves to get her brain to stand strong and make a decision. Being the omnipotent, overprotective overseer of her less than mature grey matter, she blithely ignored signals from the rest of her traitorous body.

            Still feeling edgy from her obvious lack of suitcase in the airport baggage area and the airlines’ nonchalant “check back this evening, we’re sure it will be here” attitude, she hurriedly stepped out of the cab with her backpack and promptly tripped, face down onto the warm asphalt. So graceful and light on my feet, she thought as she pushed up on skinned hands and knee to view the entire population of the state of New Mexico in front of the hotel watching as she deftly demonstrated her failure to master the art of walking in flat, slip-on ‘ready for TSA’ shoes. Just think; she was only starting to run. What would happen when she got to a full trot?

            Watching her fail at attempted recovery, the taxi driver rushed over to help her up. “Oh, no, I fell on my tablet!” The driver grabbed her arm and the bag at the same time. “Everything seems in order ma’am,” he said while shaking the bag.

            Oh. My. Gawd. He called me ma’am. Which is worse – cracked tablet screen, taking a much too public pratfall or being seen as an elderly matron or a mommy figure? My short life is officially over. Someone please cover the body. I can see the headlines that no one will read now – 32 year old washed up Tech Mogul and Worn Out Divorcee falls flat on her face as everyone knew she would. Film at eleven. She had crossed the line to stately matron then swiftly tripped over it.

            He pulled her smallish carry-on out of the trunk and rolled it to her. She thought the driver was kind of cute, in a hazel-eyed, sandy haired “working his way through college” sort of way.  Oh, so now I’m feeling all feline and cougar-ish along with being trip-ilicious. I need to get to the convention.

            Cutey boy seemed set on continuing their earlier conversation on the ride from the airport, “Ma’am, I’m sure they will find your luggage. They are really good at that. It’s unusual that it happened, must have been the weather at your layover and all of the travelers. Your day will get better, you’ll see,” he said reassuringly. He’s a sweetie trying to make her feel better and all; so she keeps her snarky alter ego hidden behind her newly bruised knee.

            Mustering a smile Rachel pushed a tip into his hand. Young optimism along with calling me ma’am – gallant little bastard; I’m two seconds from losing my dry pretzel and half a can of soda airplane lunch.

            Finally righted, she looked around and took in the resort hotel. Its ornate western luxury seemed an odd venue for the sort of convention there this weekend. Then again, what’s ‘normal’ for a con?  One would think she would have learned that in these last few years of fandom convention hopping that would be the focus of her new book. Having been to a romance fan’s convention in New Orleans that totally changed her view of that genre, an awesome steampunk adventure in Wisconsin, a tiny tri-gender off-the-wall sex con in central New Jersey (don’t ask, won’t tell) to the massive San Diego extravaganza – ‘normal’ is definitely in the eye of the convention beholder.

            Walking through the hotel lobby with its nuevo luxe native design, she reflected on what brought her here—a throw away blog entry turned freelance article she’d written three years ago about a reader’s convention that she thoroughly enjoyed. Rachel hadn’t been to a fans’ convention in years and wrote about the changes and what was still the same. The thought brought a smile to her face as she approached the desk.

            “I’m a bit early, but I really hope you can check me into my room,” she said hoping her cheesy, sneezy grin and wide non-mascara’ed puppy dog eyes would melt the heart of even the iciest hotel desk worker.

            “Well let’s just take a look Ms. –“Rachel quickly handed over her credit card before she could ask for one – “Ms. Si-Chill-is?”

            “It’s Seychelles, like the islands. “ How many times has she had to say that line?
            “Oh, so it’s Rachel Say-Shells?” she replied with unnatural emphasis on the ‘el’s’ and the tiniest bit of a smirk curling the edge of her lips. She continued tapping at her keyboard, “Are you from that country or have family there?”

            This small talk was definitely rolling down an irksome road and had to end soon, with any luck without her making a verbal attack. Damn her parents for their sense of humor and love of rhyme.

            “Nope, never been there, but I do have a bit of French in the genealogy. Who knows where that might lead?” she smirked back.

            “Well Ms. Say-Shells, your room isn’t quite ready but will be within the hour – three hours ahead of check in. Perhaps you’d like to have lunch while you wait? We’d be happy to store your luggage and deliver to your room.”

“I, ah, only have this carryon. My other suitcase was um, misplaced by the airline.” Suddenly she was feeling clumsy and out of sorts again.
            “Sorry to hear about that inconvenience, Ms. Say-Shells. If you will give me the name of your airline and flight number, I’ll have the concierge follow up on the matter immediately and have your luggage delivered to your room as soon as it’s found.”
            “Really? You’d do that for me? Thank you!” Rachel just about gushed over her. Service isn’t something you get easily these days. “I thought I had to sit by the phone all day calling, waiting, and wondering if I’d have a change of clothes tomorrow.”
            “Not to worry,” flashing her best future hotel manager smile at her, “we will follow up until it’s found. Come back in an hour to pick up your room key.”
            Rachel practically skipped away from the desk overjoyed someone else would be following up on her luggage and a little sour that she would not be able to take the shower she sorely needed after her long, convoluted flight. This con just came up out of the blue - she had made the reservations at the last minute, so there were two stops with one long layover that probably ate her luggage.
            Having an hour to burn she decided to find the con registration desk, get the schedule and maybe attend a quick session or visit the consuite before she made it to her room. The concierge pointed her in the proper direction and she picked up the obligatory badge without the usual lines that accompany the registration process later in the day. That was at least another good thing. The volunteer staff was all smiles and cheerful with “Enjoy the con” wishes as they pointed her toward the early discussion conference rooms after informing her that the consuite would not open until the next morning. Not wanting to talk to anyone else since the only dental care she had all day was a couple of wads of minty sugarless gum, she headed toward an early film discussion session.
            As she entered the small conference room she noticed it was strangely set up with long thin tables and chairs, as if for a seminar instead of a film showing. She figured this must have been a quickie ad hoc room assignment and there hadn’t been enough time to rearrange the seating. The room was unevenly divided with a pillar that interrupted the view on one side. Yet, most of the seats on that side of the room were filled. She looked to the left and saw why.
            Surprisingly only a few seats were taken up to the second row where there was a man stretched out along the front row of tables alongside the projector. Just lying there asleep, as if waiting to be the center of a sacrificial ceremony, she mused. Now that was creepy . . . and selfish. Just wanting to finally rest a bit and perhaps signal to Mr. ‘I’m-so-special-I can-lay-across-this-table-and-ruin-everyone-else’s-view’ that perhaps he was not the center of the known universe and was being a mite bit rude, she walked to the front and across a few seats, then sat directly behind his head.
            Just to be sure he knew she was there she let out a huge sigh as she placed her backpack on her lap. She had an odd feeling that every eye in the room shifted slightly from the screen to the back of her head then back again. She was no longer interested in the short subject of books made into films and now totally invested in letting a complete stranger know of her utter dissatisfaction with his actions.  Seeking blame for her current state of mind, she thought ‘Sheesh, hormones make a body crazy.’
            A few minutes passed before the sacrificial offering slowly turned his head toward her barely opening his eyes, sheepishly saying, “Am I blocking your view?”
            “Ya think?” Rachel whispered in her most sarcastic of tones.  El grande piece of work!
            “So tired.” He said turning back toward the screen. A couple that had been standing in the back seemed emboldened by her move and walked up to settle on her right.
            The film ended, the lights came up; that’s when she noticed there was a panel of three people in the front of the room all looking in their direction. As they did, Mr. Tired rolled off of the table and slouched over to the projector to turn it off.
            “Thank you for that short, Mr. Redfield,” said the first panelist. “You always share the best information with us.” Rachel considered it was as if it was the most normal of things for this greasy, long haired clown to be stretched out on a table during a session. Maybe she was the one out of place and needed to remember that this was their con; she was just a newbie visitor in search of a better story angle.
            He then turned and sort of waved his hand at the panel as a ‘thank you’ for the compliment and did the unexpected. He turned moving through the chairs next to her and sat beside Rachel on her left.  The absolute nerve of this guy. Just wait until this session is over, I’m gonna’ tear into this one, she thought.
            Not wanting to turn toward him, she felt him staring at her. Maybe he was wondering ‘who is this woman who has the audacity to interrupt my lounging?’ She sat there taking long, controlled breaths seething and channeling all the anger that had been building up all day in his direction like a Dragonball Z Super Saiyan. Several people were asking questions of the panel, but she didn’t hear a thing. Instead, she was pouting, sighing, doing an undercover sulk, leaning away from; while still secretly assessing the man on her left. Jeans, Merrills, t-shirt, hoodie – for a minute she thought they were both wearing matching nerdy, slouchy, sloppy travel uniforms. Only his looked even more slept in than her own and a lot more rank. Dude definitely had a workout in those clothes. Not to mention the reddish brown, raggedy stubble on his face that posed as a beard.
She rolled her eyes and caught him looking at her.  She was hoping he could just feel the disdain emanating from her orbs like dual death rays when instead he gave her a stupid, lop-sided smile with arched eyebrows. He abruptly stood to answer a question lobbed at him from both the audience and the panel, which she had not heard.
            “I’d say yes, the film rights are often sold before one even knows if the studio has a real feel for the book. It’s strictly a financial process these days. You might think studio A would be a better match for your work and ideas, but studio B snatches it up and maybe even holds it for a few years hoping the book will be wildly successful. If it isn’t, well it’s the luck of the draw if the right accountants, producers and director come together in a reasonable amount of time. Hopefully you have an experienced agent and publisher that take the author’s view and the studio’s capabilities in mind.” he said relieving his eye brow muscles but keeping a slight smile intact.
            The resonance of his voice momentarily stunned her. It was so incongruous, so unmatched with his visage; not too deep a baritone, yet still melodious with the thickness of rich, dark chocolate. Against her better judgment, she glanced his way with a hint of appreciation. He might be a nasty, smelly, discourteous, creep but he had a ‘melt the panties off’ voice and at least he could answer a question without falling into confusing geek speak. Besides, he did move his rump off of the table and I am so sure I helped motivate that action.
            The session must have ended because the audience began clapping and milling out of the room. The couple next to her turned and addressed Mr. Table sleeper. He spoke to them as if they were old friends. Quickly glancing at her badge he queried, “Do you two know Rachel? Rachel, let me introduce you to Jim and Amanda Howard.” As if they were old running buddies!
            This guy was too outrageous, causing Rachel’s bubbling brain to boil over.  Yet, all she could do was weakly reply “Um, no, ah glad to meet you.” Oh, it is on now.
            “Nice to meet you too, Rachel. Is this your first time at this con?” Amanda beamed at her with hair a color red yanked from an alien wavelength. Her friendly greeting kept Rachel courteous.
            “Yes, it is. “ she said trying to keep it short – she needed to give Mr. Familiar a piece of her mind and get over to pick up her room key.
            “You are going to love it,” said Jim just a bit too over enthusiastically. “Some call it small, we call it intimate. Good people, great sessions, it’s always fun,” he added. “We are going upstairs to prepare for Amanda’s panel discussion and reading later this evening. See you later.” They turned to leave and blended into the crowd moving up the aisle.
            “I’m sure I will. See you later” she said just as weakly as before. Okay, so maybe she just made a few friends . . . but not with Mr. Nasty Greasy Hair there.
            Rachel turned to the voice with a scowl to see him extending his hand which she ignored.  “Ian who? Oh, the table sleeping sacrificial non-virgin has a name. So now you want to introduce yourself! Who do you think you are? You are no friend of mine, buddy. Where do you get off introducing me to people as if we were together or long lost pals? What were you doing taking up all the space in those rows just because you were tired? That is so inconsiderate. Weren’t you taught better manners than that? At your advanced age you should know better. What, no one in your auspicious inner circle has the cojones to tell you that you are rude and self-centered? Okay, then let me provide that much needed service right now!”
            He continued smiling as if she hadn’t just laid a smashing invective on him.  She was speaking so rapidly her head and hands began to vibrate uncontrollably.  She sat down again to compose herself to leave the room. Her backpack slid to the floor as she put her fingers to her temples and ran her tongue over her dry lips. Rachel could feel and hear her cell phone vibrating, choosing to ignore it as she had all day. She certainly was not in the mood to answer those particular text messages and calls.
            This trip was supposed to be fun and calming, instead I’m lashing out at strangers. I’m whacking out.  I’ve got to show a bit more control, she thought. Slightly turning toward him, “I-I don’t know why I’m going off like this.” Her eyes partially closed drowsily, her hands suddenly too heavy to animate her apology.   “Really I just thought you were being rude to the entire room and somehow I thought it was my job to tell you.  I’ve got to chill, but I’m not sorry I told you.”
            Sitting down with her, he picked up her backpack in one rapid movement. “Just trying to be friendly, I’ve had a long day too. My name is Ian. Glad to meet you, Rachel. Looks like you may be a little distressed about something? Let me make it up to you with lunch.”
            What the . . .? Mr. I-need-a-shave-and-a-haircut is making a play? Where was I when this happened? Oh, because I’m geeking out at a con, he thinks I walk the halls with just anyone not dressed in a superhero suit? I’d hang out with a poor Captain Kirk impersonator with a homemade cardboard phaser found on Etsy before I take up with table futon man.
            Unable to stop her racing brain and equally rapid lips, the words spilled out “Lunch with you, Ian? Ahhh, don’t you think you might want to do a personal hygiene check first?”
            “Oh! That stung. Barbs go with those exotic evil eyes - righteous.” He chuckled and then said, “I apologize for my griminess. I’ve been working nonstop all night to help get the con ready. Guess I forgot a few things, along with sleep and food. Sorry if I offend milady. Trust me, I clean up well.”
            This is a non-starter if I ever saw one. I came here to clear my head, observe, write, and have a day or two where I do not have to think about my rapidly deteriorating life. Not to pick up an elfin or renaissance faire reject.
            Rachel glanced at her watch and saw it was well past time to pick up her key, musing ‘what kind of fool gives up a free lunch even if it is with a toadstool?’ Her wallet could use the break and Mr. Live Action Role Player might be good for a salad, a gin and tonic or something other than peanut butter crackers from the bottom of her backpack. The thought of a decent meal and a cocktail softened her attitude a bit causing a slight speck of self reflection. She couldn’t have been looking all that great herself; besides, he might be able to give her a brief lowdown on this con.
            “I’m tired, cranky and irritated because I’ve been traveling a long time, my room isn’t ready and the airline lost my baggage. I’m sure that if I could just take a shower and relax, maybe then my words and eyes wouldn’t be so poisonous.” Yeah, that was a plea for pity topped with a paltry excuse wrapped in a tiny flirt, but he started it.
            Ian surveyed the woman with careful amusement, hoping his unending smile did not give him away.  Sensing a small chink in her armor he offered, “It is a bit soon for check-in. The hotel had another conference early on this week and is having a time gearing up for our crew. Tell you what; you can use my room to take a shower” as he extended his room key card to her.
            Rachel’s brain ratcheted up again as she rolled her eyes to the ceiling, ‘OMG! Did he just say that? No way am I going up to psycho Steven Stalker’s room to take a shower.  They would be calling me Lizzy Landfill before I’d pull that stupid move.’
            “Really? No, Really? You really think I would go up to the room of some complete stranger to shower? After I’ve just insulted him? Is there an Alfred Hitchcock re-enactment going on somewhere? I know you have two room keys. Do I look like I want to be dismembered in the shower with a pick ax? Or come out of the shower only to find my laptop and tablet gone because you really don’t have a room and stole the key from the housekeeping staff?  As enticing as the prospect of a gratis meal is to me, I’m going to leave that carrot on the stick.”
            “Ha, ha, ha, ha!” his barrel roll of a laugh packed the now empty room. “I do like the way you speak. You have a crazy, vivid imagination that comes right out on your tongue. Ha, ha, you are too funny. No, please – I’m sorry. Ha, ha, you’re right. Ha, ha, okay, you got me. Ha, ha, ha. Okay. Sorry. Too funny,” he said, still holding out the room key shaking with laughter.
            His mirth was beginning to disturb Rachel. What was so fracking funny? Had he taken a look in the mirror lately?
            Still laughing he managed to come out with, “How about this alternative? Take the key and use the resort health club to freshen up, I’ll go up to my serial killer’s lair and do the same, then we can meet in the lobby by the restaurant – Deal?” 
            “There may not be a need, my room may be ready.” she offered, nervously playing with her necklace.
            “I doubt it, but let’s go check it out. I’m hungry and I’ll bet you are too.” He stood and waited for her to move. “That’s an interesting necklace, are you trying to break it? You are practically pulling it off your neck.”
            “Oh, thanks, um, no . . . habit I guess. I wear it all the time; it’s always there so I guess I play with it a lot when I’m not thinking of it. I’d be upset if I broke it, it means a lot to me.”
            “That so? Than perhaps you should stop pulling on it or you will need a new chain for that triangle.”
            “Uh . . . yeah, okay . . . thanks.”
            Why am I even considering this at all?  How do I get myself into these messes?  I have just spent six precious years in a mess of my own making.  Messy, messy, mess, mess! I am a bonafide mess magnet, and if that guy is not a mess I don’t know what is. Maybe I give off a mysterious messy scent that broadcasts ‘Loser’, ‘Will fall for anything’, ‘Super stupid, needy chick’, and ‘Can’t stay in a relationship’ to all passing hobos.
            If she could really stand the truth, she’d admit that her so-called quest to catalog cons hither and yon was really just another excuse not to stay at home too long and face the smothering storm her last mess had wrought.  Failed relationships had left a bad taste in her mouth, yet there remained a hunger for something more fulfilling; not knowing what she wanted to consume in the first place.
            However, she was not feeling the truthiness gene today and grease ball guy didn’t need the story of her putrid, festering messy life. She just wanted to take care of necessities and get on to the show. She gave in, standing to leave the room.
            “All right, you win, we shall grace you with our royal presence at lunch,” she said with her nose in the air, an outstretched pinky and the absolute worst British accent.
            “Ah the royal ‘we’ is it? Well then, My Lady Rachel I am much obliged.” he followed her up the aisle, bumping into her as they both laughed at her poor joke.

Chapter 2                                            Thursday Midday

            Table-sleeper was correct. Rachel was greeted with “Just another hour” and “No notice on your luggage” at the front desk. She picked up her bag from the valet promising to rendezvous with Ian in an hour after taking his room key.  Luckily, she had a few pairs of panties, black stretch slacks and a black sweater in the bag with a few toiletries, a pair of flip flops, swimsuit, a few pieces of jewelry and lots of cords for her electronics. It was a very small carryon. Everything else was in the big bag that was somewhere in airport land.
            The resort health club was empty – too early for the new check-in’s and too late for the check outs – perfect. She gave herself a tour of the workout room with absolutely no intention of exhausting herself on treadmills this trip, and then walked through steamy glass doors to the lap and whirlpools. The wafting call of the steam proved too strong for her jet lagged resistance, so she decided to try it out for just a few minutes.
            She walked back to the ladies locker room, showered and slipped into her bathing suit. A quick time check noted twenty five minutes had passed; still plenty of time to give her weary bones a relaxing treat and meet the con troll in thirty minutes. She pinned up her hair, grabbed a towel and headed for the whirlpool. She set the timer for fifteen minutes and situated herself on a shelf that allowed just her head to break the water, resting on her towel on the ledge. Tightened muscles began to relinquish the day’s stressors and yielded to the hot bubbling water. Ah, nirvana . . .    

            “You stood me up for a whirlpool?” the words came booming across the water, jostling Rachel’s head and making her jerk up out of the pool.
            “Whoa! What are you talking about? What are you doing here? I knew you would be following me! What is up with you?” She yelled back defensively.
            “You are over an hour late. However, I knew I’d find you here, enticed by the hot lure of muscle messaging water.” He said with a wide grin while holding a small tray overflowing with multiple small containers. “When I didn’t see you, I went to the restaurant and waited. Then it hit me – you never left the health club. I figured you must be some sort of mad workout fiend or maybe you were keeping my key so you could come into my room in the middle of the night and decapitate me.” Still grinning, he placed the tray on a table and began to disrobe, leaving his pants and shirt on a poolside chaise. “Don’t worry,” he said looking at her widening eyes, “I went back to the room and put on swim trunks.”
            Averting her eyes by reflex, in shock and a little bewildered she glanced up at the timer which had long since reached its end. She spied the clock at the end of the room and saw that she had been in there for over an hour! She must have fallen asleep.  Rachel started out of the whirlpool snatching up her towel to wrap it around her hoping the rest of her body was not as wrinkled as her fingertips, only to be stopped by his hand as he lowered himself into the pool. He pulled her back into the pool next to him saying “Might as well stay now – I brought lunch.”
            For just a moment, muscles froze. He guided her to sit, and then turned to face her. Board-like, she stayed in the same position, feeling less than anchored. Finally, her lips wrenched to the left of her face, while her brow furrowed. ‘I’m not even remotely attracted to this man’, she thought. Yet she sat there immobile, waiting for him to speak. She shivered in the warm water as he put his arm around her waist pulling her closer.  He looked down into her eyes and rumbled something inaudible or maybe she did not want to hear it. “Can we start over now?” he said in little more than a whisper.
             Rachel’s mouth opened, but nothing worthy of common sense came out. Being this close to him was oddly familiar and easy, yet unsettling. Odd, for a moment she even thought she recognized his scent.  She shook that off chalking it up to watching far too many educational cable channels.   “I, aahh, I’m sorry. I forgot the time, it felt so good to be so relaxed for once. I wasn’t trying to be rude, it just happened.”
            “It’s alright; I forgive you . . . for now. Hmmm . . . you really do wear that necklace all of the time; and you’re pulling at it again. Why is it so special? It seems pretty plain. I mean no diamonds or jewels or anything, just a thick silver triangle on a nondescript silver chain.”
            “I’m surprised you even noticed it. I have had it for years; it was a gift from an old friend – actually my first gift from a guy other than my dad. The sides of the triangle represent three friends and their relationship.”

            “Are you still in touch with these friends – the other two sides?”

            “Unfortunately not, I guess that’s why I wear it all of the time – it sooths me, makes me feel connected.  I wish I were still in touch, I could certainly use their combined wisdom these days. Maybe once I catch up with them I’ll be able to  . . . nah, I’ll still wear it all of the time. It’s an important concept for me.” Rachel gazed off unfocusing at the wall for uncounted minutes thinking of her lost comrades. Ian’s expression hardened as he regarded the necklace.

            Recovering and wishing to change the subject, she pointed to the tray. “What did you bring for lunch? You don’t even know what I like."

            Unaffected, he turned to her and said confidently, “I know what you like.”

            A few beats later, “I played it safe with bottled sparkling water, but I took the chance that you might love sushi/sashimi the way I do and got lots of spicy tuna, surf clam, white fish, salmon roe, and my favorite - eel along with seaweed salad. I figured if you hated it, nothing would go to waste.”

“Well too bad for you, Boo Boo ‘cause Yogi loves sushi pic-ki-nic baskets.” she pulled away from his grasp and headed out of the pool and towards the chaise. “Hope you got lots of wasabi for a sister.” Rachel plopped down with her towel. “This is my absolute favorite meal and I love eel, too. I eat seaweed whenever I get the chance. How’d you guess that Mr. Table Sleeper?”

“Your barbs are coming out, Rachel. I’m nicknaming you Barbie.”

“Don’t even try it!”

“Okay, with a ‘Y’, maybe ‘Barbs’. Anyway, you just looked like you’d enjoy eating raw fish. Like a beautiful, yet deadly turquoise and lilac sea dragon.”

            Hold up. Did dude just call her a dragon lady? She knew she was late and almost stood him up and all, but hell – she didn’t know him! Rachel gave him her best ‘Five Fingers of Death’ eyebrow arch. “Dragon, did you say? Backwards compliment from a fringe lunatic or insult from a sushi hunger crazed man – you tell me?” She deadpanned.

He straightened his body as he left the pool, “No disrespect. You are . . . Dragons are beautiful.”

“Dragons are not real.” She opined, purposely ignoring the almost compliment while divvying up the spread.
He advanced closer, “Oh, but they are. Are you aware that the upcoming year is the year of the Dragon in Chinese astrology?”

“And I should care about that because . . .?” Rachel said between bites of eel.

Ian stood dripping in front of her with legs apart and arms akimbo. It was then that she realized that she really had not paid close enough attention to the total package when first she saw him earlier that day. Either that or this package had employed considerable camouflage changing significantly in the last couple of hours. The slouchy clothes she saw earlier were an extremely good smokescreen because this was not the body of a slacker in any way, shape or form.

            Shut the front door. A well endowed lower part of the package came into focus. The mouthful of eel kept her jaw from dropping open as she surveyed the well-filled squared legged, spandex swim trunks. She assessed silently, ‘He is muscular and lean in a ‘David Beckham is going to bend it just for me’ kind of way and poses a pretty pleasing outline against the sand and ochre tile around the pool.’  So much so that she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. Were those ripples in those abs? That’s right; there were eight ripples in that pack. More than enough to get drunk on. Rachel was so blatant with her staring that she was waiting for him to say ‘My eyes are up here!’

            My, my, my . . .  Rachel sat back for a more comfortable observation spot. She remembered that earlier she thought he wasn’t half bad looking, even with his “I’m every nerd” look. Considering those killer quads on his Thor-like thighs, there’s a good chance she was wrong on the ‘half bad’ part, maybe it was the ‘half good’ – half full portion. Whatever, he definitely received her full attention now.

Something had changed in the last few hours that she couldn’t quite match with the drowsy con roadie in that first session. The slump and sloppiness were gone, along with the grubby stubble. What was left was a thin chin defining goatee and moustache with a confident manner that certainly wasn’t in the air earlier. If her mouth wasn’t full, she was sure she would stutter and drool. Wanted to touch, but wouldn’t dare . . . she could certainly get burned.

Seemingly ignoring Rachel’s gaping glare, he turned his back to her to give her a better view of something he was trying to describe, but she was not sure she was looking at the right thing and she certainly wasn’t hearing him. Her eyes travelled up past his perfectly shaped calves to muscled, well defined thighs, and then became momentarily glued to his tight derriere.  She was reminded of her Aunt Grace who, when she would see a fine young specimen of manhood, would nudge her sister – Rachel’s mother, and proclaim a line from an old commercial “Mama Mia, that’s a spicy meatball.” She and her cousins always laughed but thought that line was so corny. Now she could really appreciate the saying; this was one spicy meatball, right here. “Save me Aunt Grace,” she muttered under her breath.

 “What did you say?” he asked over his shoulder as he pointed to a tattoo on his left shoulder blade.

“Um, ah, I said ‘Nice delts’, you must work out.” Lame, lame, lame, lame, LAME!

“Not really, well not much anymore. I just have a couple of sports I love and participate in regularly.”

“Like what?” Rachel was interested in any sport that could serve up a rack o’ ribs like that.

“Skiing, hockey – I’m in a local league, biking, occasional pickup game of basketball, racquetball, hiking; that kind of stuff.”

“Mmmm, okay.”  Super jock, so not the type of guy that would have given her a thought back in school. She licked her upper lip and tried to play it off. “How old are you? I mean, if you don’t mind my asking. I mean you look, um, well, you know, good for your age. Good for any age, really.” The last sentence dwindled off into a mumble. What! Was she tongue-tied? What the hey?

“There’s a compliment in there somewhere and I’m snatching it while I can.  I’ll be thirty-seven next May,” he said as he sat on the floor to her right facing her. The movement of his abdominal muscles captivated her as he moved into position and casually laid his arm on her leg. The spark of touch surprised her and she reflexively flinched back from him.

“Don’t get touched much?” he teased.

“Don’t be silly, of course I do. Do I look that desperately sick, sad and socially stunted? Oh, I must have forgotten about the ‘social pariah’ tattoo on my forehead.”

Ignoring her sarcasm, Ian asked “Ticklish?” He was lightly drawing a line up her inner thigh with his index finger. Hey! That is intensely private – how dare he? Besides, how did he know to start there?

            “Not really, so don’t try anything—“

It was too late, he had just reached the point on her thigh that made her jump violently, chopsticks flying, overturning her chair and landing her in his lap. Rachel didn’t know what was more embarrassing – his finding her tickling weakness so soon or her landing on his lap with her hand on his steely abs. She thrashed about as if she were drowning, until he straightened and held her from behind, stabilizing her by wrapping his arms around her. She was sure he had to feel her shudder of excitement. She only hoped he misinterpreted it as repulsion.

He didn’t. “Sorry, I felt that too. You gave me a little rush of excitement there when we touched. Please don’t be offended, but you are attractive. Dazzling, in fact.” Ian up righted the chair with his free arm all the while continuing to hold her with the other.

            OMG to the nth degree. Done in, she could not say a word. Had she tried, she would have sounded much like a small green being from a long time ago in a galaxy far away. So speak not, she did.

            He shifted his body and easily got up while carrying her and placed Rachel back on the chair. My, he is strong.
He moved his face in so close to hers she thought he was going to kiss her and asked “Are you alright, your highness? I didn’t mean to topple you from your throne.”
Rachel’s answer was to feebly shake her head up and down. If only she could still the rapid thumping in her rib cage. She still seemed to have some newly migrated organs in her throat cutting off all speech.  Perhaps he had slipped puffer fish into the sashimi she devoured, temporarily paralyzing her jaw and throat, no matter how unlikely the prospect.

He perched precariously on the edge of her chaise rearranging her hair, which had fallen down from its pinned position, moving it from her face.  He caressed each loc, sliding it through two fingers to the end before moving it. It felt oddly erotic. He did this for several minutes while starring down into her eyes as if searching for something.

Unable to remain his focal point Rachel turned her head, snatching her gaze away from him.  He stood up with an unexpected jerk.

Desperate to recover her composure she asked, “Wh-what, what was that you were showing me on your back?” She reached over to the tray, took a huge gulp of her drink, and then found another set of chopsticks to replace her far-flung pair.

“It’s my dragon.”  He turned his back to her again.  “I got this tat when I reached a major achievement in my life and I make minor changes to it when I reach other milestones. Next year is the year of the Dragon, my year. I was born in the year of the Dragon. It will be my year to bring the fire. I’m destined for great things next year.”

            Was he serious? So much for the sizzling burn – she wanted to laugh out loud, but he had become quietly serious as he turned and pointed to the purple beast rising from turquoise and teal foam on his shoulder. Anyway, how was he going to react when he found out this awkward, mini turquoise lilac dragon lady just ate most of the eel and tuna while he was in his best video game pose?

“And you are showing me this because . . . ?” Okay, she’d play along.
Facing her Ian explained, “Just letting you know who and what I am – giving you a straightforward look into my psyche. I am strong-willed, ambitious . . . and I often get what I want. I love a challenge, kind of obvious because you do pose a special kind of challenge for a guy.”

“Special? Oh, so I’m not your everyday, run-of-the-mill wise ass gal, am I? What, need to take a few more classes to learn to wrangle my ‘kind’? Hmm?”

“Definitely. You seem to be a woman who has no trouble saying exactly what you mean and doubtless when you want something you ask for it directly, might even just take it. I am more used to indirect game play between the sexes, having to figure out what a woman may be thinking. You on the other hand throw me off a bit with your outspokenness. I will bet you use the truth to conceal the juicy parts. ”

“Ah, yes, covering the soft fleshy, festering wounds, still left bleeding from life’s never ending assortment of mortal and psychic vampires,” she said gaily chomping away on the seaweed. This was beginning to be fun she decided. She could definitely do this again, but maybe with a little more sashimi next time . . . for him.
“And girl I do love the way you talk, “he said as he pointed to her ever chewing mouth.

“Why purple? Why not serial killer red? Or aquatic green?” she said absently with a chunk of rice in her chopsticks and seaweed in her mouth. She had been trying to keep him turned and talking so he wouldn’t notice his lunch disappearing.

“Because it’s your favorite color.” He squatted next to her. “Speaking of color, you’ve got magnificent brown eyes. There are at least five to six different shades of brown with flecks of mica swirling in them. Striking.” Ian stood up, then sat on the chaise on the other side of the table; all the while staring intently at Rachel.

Once again, her brain went into processing overload. Oh, oh, weirdness alert. Flashing lights and buzzers were going off in her head. Raise shields, man battle stations, start the engines Scotty. Who is this guy? Don’t tell me I’m having a friendly conversation with Sly Slasher. Unexpectedly she was flattered and frightened in an instant.

He must have seen the passing panic in her face because he added, “I could tell it’s your favorite color. You broadcast it everywhere – purple hoodie, purple scarf, purple bathing suit, amethyst earrings. I’d be blind and stupid not to notice; and I do notice you. How could any man ignore you? You won’t let him. Besides, it’s my favorite color too.”

“Along with turquoise?” Clearing her palate with a morsel of ginger, she lowered her forward shields just enough to add a little wasabi to her white fish and to take in yet another compliment. How did that old line go? ‘Brother, your rap is like cellophane, I can see right through it.’

“Along with turquoise – you paid attention. I like that.” He glanced at the tray,” Whoa! You do like eel!”
“Yeah, well while you were busy showing me your dragon, I was busy acting like one and scarfing down the alleged said fish of the raw persuasion.”

“You’ve got a healthy appetite. Not one of those ladies who only eat a tiny portion on the first date. I like that too. You are real in every sense of the word; almost too real to be true.”

Rachel felt her insides lurch. There it was again, that funny feeling that there was something different in him that made her just the tiniest bit uncomfortable. So he thought this poolside picnic was a date, did he?
“Date? Please. Room service by the pool is hardly a date.”

She further explained, “At this point in my life, I’m all in with nothing to lose. I have nothing left but to ‘keep it real’, even when keeping it real goes terribly wrong. I only have to impress myself these days and I am easily impressed,”  she said with a thin veil of bravado.

He just lowered his eyes, smiled, angling his chopsticks towards the few remaining pieces of eel.
“Maybe you’ll show me your real dragon later,” he said slyly looking down at his meal.

Rachel’s’ brain began its inner tirade yet again:  Okay. So I may not be the best at flirting in the world – but what was that supposed to mean? What is up with him and his mythical beastie? I’ve got to admit I’m beginning to warm up to him. A newly filled belly and rested body tends to do that. What? A little sushi and a gal is expected to go all “Unleash the Cracken!” on a guy?

            Not so fast, Table sleeper. It ain’t that kind of party. I’ll be spanking my own dragon tonight, thank you very much! Then again, maybe a little party could be arranged if I decide I want to hit that; and who could be mad at me for that? Cosmo - because I delayed their cover story model? Who knows, I might get a little steampunk-ish in the night later on in the weekend and need to test a few devices.

            Nevertheless, for now, not a chance; I have a new project idea to formulate, a book deadline looming and still need something to push the manuscript from ‘so what’ to ‘must read’. Officially as of today, that element is still escaping me. Further distractions are not in the plan, no matter how tempting they might look right now. Besides, new rules: NO MORE COMPLICATED MEN!

“Cute but no cigar, Chauncey. I’m a year of the monkey girl. All beware who enter the rainforest lair of this clever simian. No other but dragons and rats are brave enough to enter alone and do so at their own risk. I suppose that is why you were brave enough to offer your room key.” Ian only lifted a corner of his mouth along with his left eyebrow in response.

Rachel rattled on, “There may perhaps be an occasional bit of sea monkey action, but I am sure I’m more of a tree swinging, peace and love, earthbound monkey girl. Just in case you cross international borders - monkeys are a symbol of lust in Mexican mythology. FYI—we monkeys also are known to thrive on a good challenge. I won’t show you mine even if you do show me yours. There’s got to be a lot more on the table than just a few ripe bananas to get this monkey into business.”

Pleased recognition crossed Ian’s face. “So you do have more than passing knowledge of the Chinese zodiac. Well, fair warning my little sushi ravaging MonChiChi, you should know that dragons eat flame broiled monkey on a stick.” He chuckled.

Rachel laughed to herself, she was amused that he remembered the name of that little monkey toy. Wonder if he knows the jingle that went with it? 

She bantered back, “That’s if careless and unsuspecting dragons can keep that monkey from riding their back first.” She was known to give as good as she got, but frankly, she was beginning to wonder where this irreverent repartee was taking her.
She thought changing the subject or at least referring to a more tangible one was in order about now. “Are you attending any more sessions later today?”
“I don’t know, thought I’d listen to Amanda at her panel session and then maybe get some dinner. It’s a quiet night; most guests won’t be here until tomorrow afternoon. I don’t go in for all of the sessions – mostly authors, science, and literature tracks. How about you?”
“Much of the same, really. I mean, sessions. I thought I might stay in my room and write tonight.  I’ve got mountains of work to do.  Gotta get the creative juices flowing. Speaking of which, I should go and get my room key.”
“And return mine, unless you want to keep it.” He said without looking at her.
            Well that’s about as blatant as he could get. Hmmm . . .  kind of like that too. Too bad.
Time for another subject change; she deflected with “What is your name anyway, Ian what?”

A look of surprise registered on Ian’s face. He measured his words defensively “Weren’t you listening? You heard my name. It is your full name that remains a mystery. I was beginning to think you did not want me to know your name. Perhaps you just wanted to play a first name only game, as many travelers do when all they want to leave behind is a memory.”

Now there was an interesting wrinkle, she pondered. After all of his unconcealed flirting accusing the female party of the first part of working a ‘Wam Bam, Thank You – uh, there’s that word again’, when he knows that’s the way males of the first, second or third part play it.  Dude is probably married with twenty ‘leven children, three ex-wives, several baby mamas, two dogs and a gerbil; and he’s accusing her of playing the first name only game.  A man’s’ arrogance had never failed to amuse her.  She may have previously been known to fall into that trap, but not today. She was tired of the trash that life chose to rain on her. Not today – She was getting her luggage and her life back. Starting right now.

“No, I was too wrapped up in your initial impolite behavior and missed your name. My name is Rachel, as you read on my badge. Rachel Seychelles, sometimes Seychelles-Brown or Brown.”

“Brown? Are you married?” he wrinkled his brow, shifting his body as he reached for her hand.
“I am, was, married.” she said holding her naked left ring finger up for inspection.  “Ended last year. However we still have assets in common that demand attention because of personal and business ugliness. I have left it all behind. I have up till now not been able to get all of my accounts changed and I still have some vestiges as Rachel Brown although most of my bylines are Rachel Seychelles. It is a pain, I am gradually reverting everything back to my real name. I have no idea why I subjected myself to that medieval way of thinking of a married woman as personal property in the first place. What’s wrong with her name? She gets it from her father.  I hate the name Brown and I want to ditch it as soon as possible.”  

She snatched her hand away as it began to quiver again; to say even this much about her failed marriage caused her mouth to go dry and the tiny spikes of a new headache to invade the conversation.  I have got to learn not to talk so much.

She decided to add a little levity, “Why? Does the idea of ‘boinking’ a married women turn you on?”
“Not even. Married means off limits – too much drama and trailing garbage to worry about. Anyway, I see where you are at – I guess. Sounds messy. So you are a writer, interesting. Are you sure you’ve left your old life behind? You’re not running away from anything, are you?” That would be your modus operandi. The thought rolled a wave of darkness across Ian’s’ face.

Not noticing Ian’s darkened expression; Rachel decided not to bother correcting his ascertaining of her career. Sure she had written several ‘how-to’ tech tomes and a slew of blog entries and online articles; but that was hardly her formal vocation. Truth be told, she wouldn’t mind if one day she woke up to be the female Guy Kawasaki. Tech evangelism excited her.

 “I’m not looking to get involved or married again anytime soon, if that’s what you are asking. Been there, leaving that, wearing a new t-shirt.” She thoroughly mangled that cliché.

“I’m Ian . . .  Redfield. I thought you knew.” He looked perplexed and a bit disappointed, his eyes hazing momentarily for a minor cloudburst, recovered by his radiant smile. “Seychelles, like the archipelagos? Beautiful. French, isn’t it?”

She didn’t know what to say. She was just about to mention that she had an old friend with that surname, perhaps they were related, but she was waylaid by his comment. He knew. She didn’t have to tell him. He knew. This was one clever dragon boy. Sushi, finding her undefendable ticklish zone, purple, her name; she was not waiting around to find out what else he might surmise or she might be changing her settled plan of action tonight.

Rachel stood up abruptly drying off a little more. Funny, she did not feel ill at ease around him at all. She was wondering how she should leave this – on one hand she was beginning to like him, dragons and all. On the other, she was just not in the mood for an away game one night stand.

Who knows where this critter lives. Why was she worrying about that? It might just make the weekend a lot more enjoyable than usual and perhaps even memorable. She could get up, leave and go home never to see this dragon’s tail again. No worries regarding relationships or feelings. Hmmm . . . what to do, what to do?
Her newly discovered inner dragon lady won, but her monkey girl kept it interesting. She walked over, straddled him in the chaise careful not to touch his torso, bent over and lightly kissed him on the cheek, neck and behind his ear.

“This  . . . was nice. I’ll keep the key.” she said getting up to walk to the locker room without looking back or waiting for a response.

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